Unit 5: Nature and Technology: Creating and Challenging American Identity
In this unit, we will look at ways that authors represented the new American identity: its voices, landscapes, and diversity. As often as they helped to construct long-standing ideals of the self-made American, upward mobility and economic progress, and universal liberty and equality, they also criticized the ways that American society and its political and cultural institutions failed to live up to its ideals, and the ways that economic and technological development came at a great price. In this and the following two units, we will look at ways that these authors represented and questioned the new American identity and the forces and controversies that transformed the young nation. We will examine reactions to the industrial, economic, and technological transformations that were changing the nation from a rural agrarian country to a modern capitalist one.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 13 hours.
Upon successful completion of this unit, you will be able to:
- summarize the technological development and industrialization happening during the antebellum US;
- describe Brownson's concerns about class division in the antebellum US and analyze his essay in terms of Transcendentalism;
- trace changes in the socio-economic context of the antebellum period in relationship to the election of 1824, the emergence of consumerism and the new Middle Class, the Penny Press, and immigration;
- describe the chief features and some of the leading attractions of Barnum's American Museum and other forms of urban popular or mass culture, specifically blackface minstrelsy;
- formulate interpretations of Melville's Bartleby in terms of capitalism, drawing on his other works and other secondary material;
- articulate the ways that Davis' Life in the Iron Mills draws on both sentimentalism and realism in fostering the reader's identification with the working class;
- summarize Thoreau's argument against material progress in Walden; and
- define Thoreau's critique of American politics in Resistance to Civil Government and analyze his use of nature to critique American society more generally.
5.1: Technology and Class Division
America changed dramatically during this time.
"While the majority of Americans seemed to embrace technology and its promise of progress and equality, many of the most famous writers of the era rejected technology on multiple grounds, even as they saw profound potential in either the inventive spirit behind new technologies, technology's ability to free the body for presumably higher pursuits, or the disciplined efficiency of mechanical works."
Read this introductory overview of antebellum American literature's relationship to technological development and industrialization during the era.
Orestes Brownson penned one of the most powerful critiques of capitalism in the antebellum United States, "Laboring Classes". Although Brownson was a leading transcendentalist, representing its more social-activist wing (as opposed, perhaps, to Emerson), in the years following the publication of this essay, he became increasingly conservative, renouncing his radical past and transcendentalism and converting to Catholicism. Read this essay and take notes on Brownson's ideas.
5.2: Economic Development
The election of 1824 was significant for being the only presidential election thus far where the winner of the most electoral votes did not win the election. Read this article to learn how this election's outcome set the stage for those that followed.
Read this short overview of the emergence of consumerism in nineteenth-century America.
There was relatively little immigration into the United States from 1770 to 1830. Large-scale immigration resumed in the 1830s from Britain, Ireland, Germany, and other parts of western Europe, and the pace of immigration accelerated in the 1840s and 1850s. Most immigrants were attracted by the cheap farmland available in the United States, and some were artisans and skilled factory workers attracted by the first stage of industrialization. Poor economic conditions in Europe drove many people to seek land, freedom, opportunity, and jobs in the new nation of America. Read through these sections to think about how immigration influenced the new social order being formed during this time. Think also about how these groups of immigrants might have faced racism and discrimination upon their entrance into the US.
5.3: Urban Popular Culture, the Penny Press, and the New Social Order
This essay details the changes in newspaper production with the rise of the Penny Press and also explains the emergence of urban mass culture. While many authors during this time attempted to draw together diverse audiences by uniting disparate elements of American culture, they also delineated themselves from what they saw as an undisciplined and unrefined subculture. As such, authors like Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Dickinson, and Melville prefigured the further division of elite and mass culture that came to define much of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth literary and cultural debates.
The US was experiencing profound economic changes during this time, and those changes led to equally important social and cultural transformations. The formation of distinct classes, especially in the rapidly industrializing North, was one of the most striking developments. The unequal distribution of newly created wealth led to divisions along class lines. Perhaps most interestingly, the middle class began to form during this period. Read this essay to learn about these important changes in culture.
Watch the introductory video and explore this website to discover more about P.T. Barnum, one of the most well-known Americans and collectors of popular culture during this period. Don't miss the "Classroom" link. You will find an abundance of essays and information available here to help you better understand Barnum's role in making culture.
Blackface minstrelsy arose during this period. Read this essay to understand what it entailed and why it became so popular.
5.4: Melville, Capitalism, and the Limits of Sympathy
You were introduced to Melville's work before; now you will read his two most famous short stories, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids", with an eye toward the consequences of swift economic change. Melville's "Bartleby" is one of the most famous American short stories, and has increasingly been read in terms of the development of capitalism in the antebellum era. Make sure to think about the ways in which Melville uses symbolism, imagery, repetition, dialogue, and allusion in these two stories.
This essay introduces some of the interpretations of Melville's most famous short story.
Melville's diptych "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" offers a clear critique of the division of labor (and leisure) during the period.
5.5: The Move toward Realism in Davis' "Life in the Iron-Mills"
First published anonymously in The Atlantic Monthly in 1861, Rebecca Harding Davis' novella "Life in the Iron-Mills" largely disappeared from American literary history until it was republished in 1972 by the Feminist Press. In the decades since then, however, Davis' short work has been appreciated as an important early description of the moral and social costs of industrialization, a key work bridging the sentimentalism of the mid-nineteenth century and the realism of the latter part of the century, as well as a significant meditation on art and the role of the artist in industrial capitalism". Read this introductory essay to Davis' important novella.
Read Davis' novella. Trace the way that you see Davis bridge sentimentalist fiction with more realist styles, often more visible toward the end of the nineteenth century. Ask yourself the following questions while reading:
- Look at the title. What is the significance of it?
- Who is the "I" or narrative voice in the text?
- Who is the "you" that the narrative voice addresses?
- What is the effect of this direct address of the reader?
- Find descriptions of Hugh and Deb. What do they look like, what do they do, how do they talk? What is their relationship?
- Look at the descriptions of the sculpture of the woman made from korl (waste product of the mills). How is it described? What details are important? How do different characters describe it? What symbolism might be involved here?
- Several men meet Hugh at the mill; among them are Kirby (the overseer and son of a mill owner), Doctor May, and Mitchell (Kirby's brother-in-law). What position(s) do each of these three men take towards Hugh? What do they say to him?
- What has happened to Hugh and to Deb at the end of the story? Did you expect these outcomes for these characters? What do these endings suggest?
- What do you make of the final two paragraphs where the narrator returns? Why is this here? How does it help the ending?
- What additional insight does this give us into the narrator ("I") and the "you" from the earlier part of the story?
5.6: American Nature as Challenge to American Progress
You have already been introduced to Thoreau as a writer. Read this short essay on get a better sense of him as an activist.
Read chapters 1–5 (Economy; Where I Lived, and What I Lived For; Reading; Sounds; Solitude), 11 (Higher Laws), and 17–18 (Spring; Conclusion) of Thoreau's masterpiece. Walden denies most genre categories including the novel, autobiography, and narrative; instead, the work roams freely from subject to subject, discussing the cycle of seasons, the experience of solitude, and local attractions, among other things.
In this influential political manifesto, also known as "Civil Disobedience", we find a passionate response to the US-Mexican War and the slavery controversy. With this work, Thoreau influenced such twentieth-century leaders as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Unit 5 Assessment
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Take this assessment to see how well you understood this unit.
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